Exploring the world through tantra
Managing the senses in a sense-driven world: how Tantric philosophy can enhance our experience of everyday life. By Kerry Curson
The smell of freshly cut grass in the summer; the feeling of warm sunshine on our face; a hug from someone we love; silky sweet chocolate; white sandy beaches and meadows of wild flowers boasting all the colours of the rainbow…how blessed are we to enjoy these five senses gifted to most of us humans?
These five senses nourish our spirit when we allow ourselves to fully indulge in all of their sensations fully. However, with all that we blast at them in our modern, technological society, is it possible that we have lost connection to their real beauty and instead follow them unknowingly into behaviours and actions that do not serve us?
The bright lights of our mobile phones keep our brains wired way beyond bedtime, while television, magazines, social media and radio blast our eyes and ears with messages 24/7. They show us or tell us what we ‘should have’ or ‘should be’, how to get better, do better, to want more, to try harder, to look here, there and everywhere for happiness.
It is human nature to want to be part of something greater than us and, unfortunately, marketers know this. We all desire a community that we feel an affinity with, and important within. In our search for meaning, our senses draw us outside of ourselves. Need to lose weight? There’s a product, app and plan for that. Want to wear the latest fashion? Just type it into any search on your phone and the algorithms will be chasing you until you make your purchase.
We are all more aware now than ever before, of how we often allow technology and all its pros and cons to take up too much of our time. The real question is how can we keep the right balance? How can we remain grounded in reality and find genuine, lasting happiness among so much information that seems to want to leave us always wanting?
Perhaps we can find some solace within Tantric philosophy. There are many different lineages and branches to yoga philosophy, and no one is better than another, but all are experiential and have lessons to teach us about our own humanity. We are most commonly brought to the teachings of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. This is a huge modern influence on yoga as we know it today. In this text, yoga practitioners are urged towards pratyahara - ‘removal of the senses’ translated historically to mean redirecting the attention of the senses from the outer world to our own inner world. Bringing our awareness to the inner workings of the mind in order to quiet the fluctuations of the mind for greater peace or citta-vritti-nirodha ‘cessation of the turnings of thought’. Another classical yoga text the Maitri Upanishad states: “If the fuel of the senses is withheld, the mind is reabsorbed into the heart.”
For many of us, this is like going cold turkey on the outer world that we are so familiar with and attached to. Many of us have tried our own modern translation of similar ‘cold turkey’ restraints from bad habits and addictions – such as the process of trying to quit smoking, drinking or eating certain foods that we know are not good for us. For those who have tried any of the above, feelings of desperation, deprivation, craving and inner conflict will be familiar. For those that haven’t, try to imagine feeling such a whirlwind of negativity toward something that is supposed to be doing positive things for our health and wellbeing. The list of things that our senses crave (and that we try to quit) could potentially be endless. For the most part, when motivation is low and craving is high, we fail and the fluctuations of the mind just keep on rolling. This may be an over simplification of the kind or sense removal that classical yoga was referring to, however for many of us to dive straight into harsh discipline in areas of our lives where there has been none for a very long time is often too challenging to persevere.
Tantric philosophy is sometimes described as the spirituality of the ‘householder’. These practices did not ask practitioners to renounce the world and all of the material that pulls our awareness outwardly, it in fact embraced the physical universe in all its beauty and desolation. The Tantrikas began to show practitioners another way, indulgence with awareness (Osho).
‘The Tantric position, which regards desire and spiritual life as perfectly compatible, is beautifully illustrated in the mythological figure of the God Shiva…a deity of insatiable desire” (Georg Feurstein). Essentially the more Tantric approach to the senses is to indulge them to the fullest, mindfully, without greed, but with the whole of the self and the full capacity of the sense itself. This is in order to move beyond emotion and the analytical mind and thus experience a oneness with the world around us that is not marred by thought and perception but experienced directly from your centre.
For example, when it comes to eating, to fully experience the sense of taste and satiate the palate you must taste all the dimensions of flavour: sweet, salty, pungent, sour and astringent (according to the yogic practice of Ayurveda). If we are busy while we eat, working at a desk, talking or reading, we have not fully indulged that sense in the experience and so it is left wanting. So, we eat again, sooner than physically needed, but emotionally we missed something. When we rush through our day getting to the next destination, do we miss the sound of children laughing, birds singing and acts of kindness going on all around us? Tantric philosophy suggests that to be fully immersed in the sensory experience from the outside in has the potential to bring us closer to the spiritual Self.
How to do this?
Start small: it is impossible for most of us to remain aware with our full attention on something for long periods. Meditation improves this ability significantly, however building any new habit needs to be made accessible. So start by considering which sense you pay least attention to and which may be overworked. Do you watch too many videos on Facebook? Do you listen to the news every hour on the hour, or eat too many snacks? Pick an area of the senses that you think might be overworked and under-nourished and set your intention on cleansing and fully utilising this sense. Then, when using that sense throughout your day, try to fully feel your way through the experience, which it presents to you. When listening to someone in conversation actively listen to their words trying to avoid thinking about what you will say in reply, but fully listen and hear what they say beyond the need to analyse and want to reply immediately. Tantric philosophers have said that as soon as the mind labels something you are no longer in direct experience with it. When walking down the street, tune in to all the sounds, even the subtle ones, so that you can become aware of all the nuances of each moment even on a routine walk that may otherwise seem familiar and boring. When eating, stop whatever else you are doing to chew slowly and taste all of the flavours of your meal or snack. If it was a snack of comfort you may notice that it wasn’t as comforting as you thought it might be, or if you eat the same every day you might notice that it isn’t more food you require but more flavour. Adjusting this on intuition can be a great way to eat a healthier, more varied diet and is also a more enjoyable way to eat. Search for new things on regular journeys. Maybe you never noticed that huge oak tree or the shop window with a cat peacefully sleeping on its sill. Feel the physical sensations as you move through your day, the wind in your face and the sun on your skin, or even the rain. We are so quick to shield ourselves from the elements but sometimes exposure may provide the most vivid, enlivening experience of the moment.
Our structured world of routines and repetition can so easily be taken for granted as mundane and predictable. However, Tantric philosophy offers us a way to experience immense beauty and pleasure from moment to moment through the five senses. It does not ignore or negate negativities but instead gives us a strong foundation of peace and gratitude for life so that when we hit inevitable bumps in the road, we are able to meet them with strength and grace. As we fully embody the whole of our experience of life we are able to discover happiness in simplicity, to make conscious changes from a place of calm in order to bring about positive change and lasting contentment.